Few Hollywood directors or producers have thought longer or harder about how to find their own way, outside the constraints of the usual studio system, then Steven Soderbergh. The happily unretired director was all over Park City, Utah this week, simultaneously debuting a newly produced film for Sundance attendees, while also showing off his own latest independent project at the nearby Slamdance festival. That latter movie, High Flying Bird, is being produced at Netflix, but when the streaming service offered to give their latest big-name partner one of their rare theatrical releases for his new movie, he flatly turned them down. “I had to get on the phone with some Netflix folks to explain in person—because apparently this message wasn’t getting through to anybody—that I did not want a theatrical release for High Flying Bird,” Soderbergh told Deadline in a wide-faring interview about his relationship with movie-making this week. “They’d been having screenings for people, who seemed to like the movie and so this proposal started, let’s do New York and L.A., a couple of screens. And I said no.”
Soderbergh has always been an iconoclast, from the early days of Sex, Lies, And Videotape up to his recent attempts to go maverick on the apparatus of movie marketing with films like Logan Lucky and Unsane. In the interview, though, it becomes clear that he’s not out there trying to break established taboos for their own sake; he’s just a guy who really loves movies, and puzzling out all the different ways people can find to marshal the massive amount of resources required to make them.
Take, for instance, the ultimate failure of his plans to launch Logan Lucky on nothing but $20 million in marketing money (and also Channing Tatum’s ridiculously powerful social media presence):
Typically, you cannot get out of bed for under $30 million in marketing and it’s probably going up from there. I felt with a strategically targeted campaign, you ought to be able to do it for $20 million. My concern was, the implications of skyrocketing marketing costs are dire for creative people. So I wanted to see if it was possible. It didn’t work on Logan. I got the opportunity to do it again on Unsane. It didn’t work again. The bottom line: $20 million is not enough for a wide-release film to generate the level of awareness that you have to have. It’s just not.
A lot of the things that I disliked about marketing, if I were going to put a movie out in wide release now I would be forced to embrace. Talk shows, junkets, all that stuff that I always wonder, what is this for? What is this doing? If they work, why do movies tank while other movies don’t do anything and they take off? There is this whole other ecosystem that just deals with PR and all that stuff. Just talk to the people over at the Four Seasons. I wanted to test a theory. Could you increase awareness by generating direct contact between, let’s say, your talent and the audience, and draw people toward a film? Chan[ning Tatum] went on this little road trip the week before Logan Lucky opened. He was doing fun stuff with real people and he posted a couple of things that millions and millions of people saw. Didn’t move the needle at all. They didn’t connect that to, “I’ve got to go see that movie.” It was just, “I love Chan.” So in retrospect I’m like, I should have made him do all the talk shows.
For what it’s worth, Soderbergh doesn’t seem daunted by his failure to short-circuit the movie marketing machinery. He’s still directing and producing movies at a near-feverish rate—even if he has to remind his partners that he didn’t go to Netflix to have some sort of big theatrical release. “I go, if I wanted to do that, I would have accepted an offer from one of your competitors who do that for a living and gone that way. I sold the movie to you to be on your platform. So that’s what I want. I want every eyeball on the platform. It’s coming out February 8. If you guys are doing this as some sort of awards thing to have in your back pocket, I think you’re putting the cart before the horse. Let’s stick to the plan.”
You can read Soderbergh’s full interview—in which he also talks Ocean’s, the Russo Brothers, and Memento—right here.